February 15, 2017

Case File #017.02.15: AGNOSTIC

Agnostic is often used to refer to somebody who is uncertain or noncommittal about the existence of God or other such cosmological prime movers, but the term originally had a different meaning. Coined circa 1870 by British biologist Thomas Huxley—grandfather of the more famous twentieth-century author, philosopher, and hallucinogens advocate Aldous Huxley—the word is a combination of the prefix a-, which means “without” or “not,” and the noun Gnostic, which refers to an adherent of an ancient religious cult that claimed to have privileged or esoteric knowledge about spiritual matters. Thus, agnostic literally means “someone without esoteric knowledge of spiritual matters,” and Huxley came up with the term as a label both for himself and for anyone else who might share his position that the observable universe is the only source of concrete knowledge and truth. So rather than being a person of doubt or indecision, a Huxleian agnostic is actually an empiricist who, due to the lack of observable or measurable evidence, is likely to take a firm stance against the existence of God. Indeed, Huxley suggested that by being an agnostic, he was also an atheist by default. “I have never had the least sympathy with the [arguments] against orthodoxy,” he wrote, “and I have by nature and disposition the greatest possible antipathy to all the atheistic and infidel schools. Nevertheless, I know that I am, in spite of myself, exactly what the Christian would call—and, so far as I can see, is justified in calling—an atheist and an infidel.”

©2017 Michael R. Gates